In Defense of Off-Trail Hiking

When we ran a story about the beauty of trail-less hiking, some of our readers objected. BACKPACKER Editor-in-Chief Dennis Lewon responds.

Recently, we published a story about off-trail hiking, in which guides and other outdoor pros shared the wildest things they’ve seen while hiking cross-country. Unexpectedly, we received a lot of feedback suggesting that it’s wrong to hike off-trail, and that we were irresponsible for publishing the article. I stand behind the story, and here’s why: Not only is hiking without a trail perfectly appropriate in many wilderness areas—actually, it’s the only way to hike in some places—it offers an exceptionally rewarding way to experience the backcountry.

Critics of our story fell into two camps. Some apparently think that “off-trail” hiking means cutting switchbacks or taking shortcuts. Nope, that causes erosion and we would never advocate it; off-trail hiking means leaving the trail far, far behind. Others believe that off-trail hiking is illegal. While there are certainly places where it’s prohibited for sound environmental reasons, there are many places where it’s allowed, and also many where it’s mandated. In Denali National Park, for example, there are zero backcountry trails, just zones in which backpackers are directed to find their way as best they can. I’ve hiked in Denali, and will never forget the challenge of navigating that wild, trail-less terrain. Everyone we quoted followed the rules for the areas where they were hiking. (Yes, we checked, and double-checked when some readers objected).

In fact, off-trail hiking has been essential to some of my best trips ever, from Wyoming’s Wind River Range to Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park to California’s Trinity Alps. Many lakes, peaks, and slot canyons in these and other areas can’t be reached by trail. But here’s what I’ve learned over the years: Most hikers don’t want to hassle with going off-trail. It’s harder and slower, and you have to navigate without trail signs. Not for you? That’s OK, hikers who prefer trails will find thousands to choose from.

As we indicated at the start of the story in question, you should always check with land managers before hiking off-trail. There are indeed places where it’s not allowed or LNT guidelines make it ill-advised. But as with campfires and fishing and swimming, you just have to know when and where it’s OK.